The UTEP men’s cross country team entered the 1981 NCAA Championships as a confident bunch.
Before the meet started, the runners approached coach Ted Banks and told him they felt they might be able to get a perfect score, which in cross country means having five of the seven runners finish in the top five places.
Banks laughed and told them, “Let’s just worry about winning.”
However, his team narrowly missed its prediction, and to this day holds the best score at the NCAA Championships with 17 points. The Miner runners finished in five of the top six spots. Penn State’s Alan Scharsu was the only person to keep UTEP from perfection as he finished fourth overall. Providence finished a distant second as a team with 109 points.
“We were very fortunate to get 17,” Banks said. “It was beyond my wildest dreams. That was the best team I ever had, by far.”
Those are serious words coming from Banks, who led teams to six NCAA men’s cross country titles, including four in a row. However, looking at the pedigree of the 1981 Miner team, it is easy to see how they were so successful.
The individual champion was Mathews Motshwarateu, who covered Wichita State’s 10k course in 28:45.6. Motshwarateu previously set the world 10k road record in 1980, becoming the first person to break the 28-minute barrier. The second-place finisher at the NCAA meet was Michael Musyoki, who finished a mere eight-tenths of a second behind Motshwarateu. Musyoki won the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics in the 10,000 meters and set the world record in the half marathon in 1982. UTEP’s third-place finisher was Gabriel Kaman, who finished in 29:19.3 despite coming down with stomach problems halfway through the race.
The Miners’ best and most decorated runner, Sulieman Nyambui, was held out of the conference meet weeks before the championship due to a strained muscle in his leg and was not at full strength for the NCAA meet. In spite of that, he placed seventh overall and fifth among runners in the team competition in a time of 29:32.6. Nyambui won the silver medal in the 5,000 meters at the 1980 Olympics, then came back and won the 1980 NCAA cross country title. He also won seven NCAA outdoor track and field titles (four in the 10,000 meters and three in the 5,000 meters), which is second in NCAA history behind Ohio State’s Jesse Owens, who won eight titles. In addition, Nyambui broke the world indoor 5,000-meter record with a time of 13:20.4, just ahead of U.S. running legend Alberto Salazar, who set the American indoor 5,000-meter record in the same race.
The final scorer for UTEP was Gidamis Shahanga, who placed eighth overall and sixth among runners competing on teams, in a time of 29:33.6. Shahanga competed in the marathon at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics for Tanzania, finishing in 15th and 22nd place, respectively. The final two runners for the Miners also finished in the top 20, earning All-America honors — Sam Ngatia was 19th in 29:50.0, while Tom Mawan was 20th in 29:51.5.
“They were very talented, but they were also very hard-working,” Banks said. “They never took their talent for granted, and even with their impressive credentials, they never rested on their laurels.”
While the Stanford Cardinal put together an impressive point total of 24 while winning the title in 2003 by having runners in second, third, fourth, fifth and 10th, no team has been able to beat UTEP’s magical effort.
“It’s completely absurd to score only 17 points at the NCAA Cross Country Championships,” said Bob Braman, the former president of the Division I Cross Country Coaches Association and current head coach at Florida State. “The talent on that team was just amazing. I just can’t ever see that happening again.”
The NCAA Stats at 75 series will be published weekly through May and will include interesting statistical championship stories and all-time performances. Photos courtesy of the UTEP athletic department.